Bad Music and Good Leadership


I don't like conflict. By nature, I lean toward harmony, almost to a fault. But harmony isn't always what we need. In music, harmonious sounds can easily become monotonous. Imagine only having the same pleasant-sounding notes played over and over. Pleasing and maybe soothing at first but before long it becomes either boring or annoying.

Great composers and song writers know how to make effective use of an artful interplay between harmony and dissonance. It's the relationship of the two that makes music interesting. It gives the song a sense of shape and movement. And it's the careful use of dissonance, that may sound bad for a moment, that creates the greatest sense of movement.

If you have access to a piano or keyboard, try this short experiment. Play two notes that are close together with no other note between them such as any white key with the next black key to the left or right. How does that sound? If you say, "wonderful" then I suggest you download a few Bartok string quartets for your listening pleasure. Here's a link to his String Quartet #4.

I mean no disrespect to a great composer, but Bela Bartok's music is somewhat of an acquired taste for the average listener. But stay with me and try one more step. Go back to those same two notes and play them again except this time, hold the lower one down and "walk" the other one up a note at a time until it starts sounding better. Did you notice how restless the first combination sounded? It's almost like the notes want to move away from each other. You can reverse the experiment by going back to the first two notes and then just release one of them so that only one note is sounding. You likely had the same sense of movement away from the clashing sounds.

My point is that great songs always have a sense of movement. They're "going somewhere." Dissonance, that clashing sound, is just one tool that song writers use to keep their music moving.

There's also a leadership principle here. Dissonance creates movement and movement leads to progress. In fact, there is no progress without movement. Innovation seldom happens when we are complacent. Growth is often painful but then again, so is stagnation.

Beware of too much harmony. Allow some tension in your teams and organizations. Even embrace some degree of conflict, as long as there is agreement on values and goals. That is not to say you should be "stirring the pot" and tolerating high levels of anxiety. But having enough conflict, dissonance, or differing points of view to resist stagnation will most likely improve your creativity and productivity.

But, like a great song writer, you'll want to be intentional. Here are some principles to keep in mind.

  1. Make it purposeful. Be sure it is helping you move forward. Dissonance without motion is as boring and pointless as complacent harmony, except it is even more destructive. Remember there's a difference between noise and music.

  2. Don't create it. Let it surface naturally as different opinions and viewpoints are identified. As long as you have at least two people on your team, this won't be a problem because no two people have the same perspective on everything.

  3. When conflict happens, make sure it doesn't become personal. Keep the focus on the problem to be solved so that relationships are respected and preserved.

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